SS Varvassi

SS Varvassi

ss varvassi

The SS Varvassi was a 3.874 ton Greek merchant steamship that became infamous for running aground off the Needles Lighthouse, Isle of Wight on January 5th 1947.

The SS Varvassi was travelling from Algiers to Southampton with a mixed cargo.  She was carrying 600 tons of iron ore, 200 tons of tangerines and 438 barrels of wine.  She suffered engine failure off the Needles and drifted onto the rocks where she became stuck.  The Yarmouth Lifeboat was called out several times to assist but the captain sent them away hoping to save the ship.  Several attempts were made to re-float her, but the strong South-Westerly winds and tides were not kind to her.  Eventually with waves breaking over the deck the captain abandoned ship, all crew were saved by the Yarmouth lifeboat.  Over the next few weeks attempts were made to recover the cargo but this proved very difficult.  The SS Varvassi was officially declared a wreck on 21st January 1947.  She was broken up as best as could be done at the time, but this was hampered by strong tides and bad weather.  The iron ore cargo spilled out onto the reaches, the tangerines could be seen floating around in the water for weeks and as for the wine?  Well I’m sure we can guess that one!  To this day parts of the hull still remains underneath the water.  On very low tides, close to chart datum, the boilers can be seen just breaking the surface of the water.

ss varvassi

The wreck of the SS Varvassi is marked on charts to warn ships and yachts of her location, but she still manages to catch some unwitting sailors.  The Round the Island Yacht Race runs every year and around 1200-1800 yachts take part in this popular circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight.  Yachts of different classes have to sail around the island in a day.  They start at Cowes head West to the Needles, go round the Needles down to St Catherine’s Point, then up the East side of the island and back to Cowes.  In 2016 the Commodore of the Island Sailing Club (the club that organises the race) Mark Wynter, lent his 1977 beautiful wooden Half Tonner Alchemist to friend and helmsman Andrew Talbot to participate in the race.  Mark Wynter was too busy to enter.  You can guess what happened.  Alchemist hit the submerged boilers of the SS Varvassi and started to take on water.  The Mudeford Lifeboat got to the scene and valiantly tried to tow the £30,000 yacht off the wreck but as it started to sink fast, this attempt was abandoned and the remaining crew were rescued.  Here is some footage taken by one of the RNLI crew showing the sinking:

 

 

If you should find yourself sailing around the Needles make sure you have a current chart.  As a guide to those without electronic or optical aids (are you mad?!), there is a simple way to tell if you are near to the wreck.  Make sure you can see (with a height of eye of 6ft above the water) the Old Coastguard Station at a level clear above the top of the lighthouse.  Here is a diagram to further explain:

 

ss varvassi

 

And another to highlight the location:

 

ss varvassi

 

sailing dating

 

SS Richard Montgomery

SS Richard Montgomery

Historical Background of the SS Richard Montgomery

ss richard montgomery

Launched on the 15th June 1943, the SS Richard Montgomery was built during World War II as an American Liberty Ship. Named after an Ulster General of the same name who was killed during the American Revolution, the ship was said to be carrying around 7000 tonnes of bombs and ammunition when it left Hog Island, Philadelphia in August 1944.  She was heading for the UK where she would join a convoy bound for Cherbourg.  On arriving at the Thames Estuary, the ship was told to anchor 1 mile off  the coast at Sheerness, adjacent to the Nore sandbank, by the King’s Harbour Master.  This was a controversal decision because the draught of the SS Richard Montgonmery was 31′ and the depth at low tide of the anchorage was 30′.  It’s not sure whether the anchor slipped or the tide was very low (neap tide), but the ship became stranded on the sandbank on 20th August 1944.  Efforts were made to alert the Captain of the SS Richard Montgomery as she dragged towards the sandbank, but they failed as he was sleeping and the Officer of the Watch did not respond.

A Ticking Time Bomb?

Work started to remove the ammunition on 23rd August.  Stevedores were able to unload the rear holds of the wreck whilst the ship stayed intact.  Just 24 hours later the ship’s back broke and eventually separated into 2 pieces flooding the holds.  The salvage operation had to be abandoned on 25th August 1944.  The front is still laden with corroding explosives – A survey carried out in 2000 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), stated the ship likely contains more than 9,000 US-made explosives.  These include 286 giant 2,000lb bombs, 4,439 1,000lb devices and more than 2,500 cluster bombs. There are concerns that, as the wreckage continues to rust, bombs could be displaced and potentially set off. Also ever present is the risk that the wreck could by hit by one of the many passing ships to navigate this busy area.  Experts have equated the explosive power of the bombs on board as half of that which obliterated Dresden. This potential threat has halted plans to build a floating airport in the Thames Estuary, as there are concerns as to whether building and engineering works might tamper with, and potentially set off, the volatile explosives.

ss richard montgomery

Controversy and Speculation

The masts of the sunken ship are still visible above the water’s surface, though speculation continues to abound regarding what is hidden underneath. Although not all of the explosives on board are live, there are rumours that an atomic bomb is on board. Though Southend Borough Council were quick to dismiss the speculation, an unnamed councillor believed that President Roosevolt had sanctioned an atomic bomb, much like the ones used on Japanese territory, to be used on Berlin, and that the bomb in question was on board the SS Richard Montgomery. This theory has not yet been validated, however, and the aircraft bombs that have been identified on board seem to suggest the story is nothing more than an urban myth.

Fictional Legacy

The mysterious tale of the ship’s demise and aftermath has provided inspiration for several works of literature and film. German writer Uwe Johnson, who lived in Sheerness for ten years between 1974 and 1984, wrote a short story entitled The Unfathomable Ship about the wreckage and ruins. More speculative interpretations have also emerged. The blast set off by the bombs left on board is the catalyst for Malcolm Rose’s young adult adventure series, Jordan Stryker, centre on the eponymous hero who is taken in by a secret government organisation after nearly being killed in the blast. In the television drama, Walking the Dead, the ship also features as the crime scene where three murdered women are found in a sunken fishing boat.

Related Article: Liberty Ships